[Warning: discussion of coercion, abuse, compulsory sexuality]
When an asexual person is talking about the problems they face, it is not appropriate to start whining about your own sex life.
So, for reasons you can probably guess, I’ve been seeing a lot of a certain plastic surgeon this past week (since I’m making a vague attempt at anonymity and want to avoid affecting his google search results, I’ll leave out his name, though if you really want to know about it, you can email me—you FTM types in particular might want to). And just about as soon as I walked into his office for my partner’s pre-surgery consult, right after he found out who I was, he goes, “Wow, you have a pretty partner!” And continued to talk about my looks for a little bit. He commented on my skin, the balance of my face, and so on. But not my eyes, which is a little odd (though understandable given his profession), since that’s what people usually comment on. I very rarely get comments on my skin or face shape. And… I think there has yet to be a single time when I’ve seen him that he doesn’t make some kind of comment about my appearance, at least once. Well, other than yesterday, when he came in wearing an expensive suit and was like, “Hey, how ya doin? Looking good! Okay, bye!” We’re staying right near his office and he comes to check in every day, so that’s saying a lot. He took me to the grocery store the other day and couldn’t resist commenting to a friend he was on the phone with, “You wouldn’t believe the pretty girl I have here pushing my cart right now. One of my patient’s friends.”
It’s a little annoying, as a side note, that he keeps referring to me as my partner’s “friend” in public, though I guess he’s trying to be careful not to out us as a lesbian couple if we don’t want to be out. Not that it matters around here, anyway. It’s a big city, nobody knows us, and we barely received a second glance (if we did at that, I’m not sure) from anyone while we were walking down the street holding hands. It’s a nice change; too bad we won’t get too many chances to do it for this trip.
Anyway, that aside, I’m a bit annoyed by all the compliments. I mean, I understand that it’s his business to notice a lot about people’s appearance—he can tell with just a glance when there’s a very slight asymmetry that most people never notice, it’s pretty impressive—but it’s just kind of like… Okay, I’m pretty, can we move on now? Maybe? No?
Well, I guess the doctor is making the assumption that the people who come here like to be complimented on their looks. To be fair, it’s probably pretty accurate. But I’m not here for me. And maybe it’s just paranoia, but I tend to feel like putting so much focus on me might be detrimental to the self-image of any other patient who might overhear.
I don’t really know how to act when people compliment me on my looks, never even mind when they do it this often. Smile awkwardly, mutter a “thank you,” I guess. Culturally, I suppose it’s expected that girls and women should say something disparaging about some part of their bodies, and then praise another woman’s looks instead, though that’s a little bit of a different situation than this. “Oh, but I hate my thighs, and you have such nice ones,” that sort of thing. I won’t do that, because I think it plays into bad body image for one thing, and why can’t women be allowed to just accept compliments, like men can? I don’t like that kind of culturally enforced modesty and derision towards oneself. It’s annoying to go around boasting and being smug, and that goes for both men (especially men) and women, but do we really need to go to such extremes to avoid seeming arrogant or competitive? It’s considered unfeminine to have some self-confidence, I guess.
Honestly, I’d like to just say, “I know”—meaning, “Yeah, I know you think I’m attractive, let’s move on”—but people read that as narcissistic or otherwise rude. I’m not staring at myself in the mirror a lot or anything, I’m just sick of hearing about it. I just want to brush those compliments aside, because they bug me. It’s not like I’m trying to look pretty. It isn’t an accomplishment, it’s nothing I’ve worked at. I don’t wear make-up, I don’t pluck my eyebrows, I hardly do anything to enhance my appearance beyond basic hygiene. I don’t even wear my contacts anymore, and I have very thick glasses that will always distort the line of my cheekbones, no matter what style frames I wear. When people compliment me on my writing, or something else I’ve done, I feel good about it. But when people compliment me on my appearance it makes me feel awkward and bad, because there’s so much focus on women’s appearance in general, and because it makes me the object of a lot of other people’s envy. Also, because I’m naturally thin and petite, I used to regularly get a lot of snide comments about how I “must” have anorexia, and lots of people pushing me to eat more than was comfortable. It was a repeated exchange that went kind of like this: “Ugh, you’re so thin, you must be anorexic. You should eat.” “But I’m no—” “EAT!” I rarely had any outright harassment about how “disgusting” I am, except from my sister (who is mean to everybody), but there was still a sense that I shouldn’t look the way I do, because it’s other people’s ideal. I realize I’m privileged because my body happens to match the current social ideal. I wish it didn’t have such a drastic effect in the way people treat me.
Not to mention, there’s the sexual element of it, which I’m rather uncomfortable with. I’m not about to say everyone should stop being sexually attracted to me, of course not. Everyone is entitled to their own sexual feelings. But when they’re directed at me, I just don’t know what to do with them. I’m not even talking about when people are being creepy, just when they’re politely telling me I’m attractive, in a reasonable way. So again, I just kind of shrug it off and thank them awkwardly. Sometimes I will tell them I’m asexual, if it’s a situation where that’s appropriate. The doctor certainly doesn’t need to know, nor do I usually decide to say anything about it to people I’ve only recently met, unless I’ve spent a lot of time with them since then. But if I do mention that I’m asexual, usually that commits me to a long discussion about it in which I am asked obnoxious questions. That can be just as uncomfortable as having a lot of comments about how sexually attractive I am directed at me, sometimes more.
The irony, of course, is that one burgeoning stereotype (born from the misconception that we “just can’t get any” most likely) about asexuals seems to be that we’re all ugly and unattractive anyway. For evidence, this year my blog has received hits from the following search terms:
why are asexuals ugly
can you find asexualness attractive?
And there were several other variants more than a month old that I’m not going to bother to go hunting for. To answer those questions, I’ve also received hits from these terms:
i find asexual people sexy
how does one attract an asexual
how to get an asexual to want you
how to convert an asexual person
what kind of sex are asexuals into?
So apparently there are people who are attracted to and really want to attract asexuals out there. Imagine that. That last one is particularly funny to me. I’ll have to make a post to answer those later.
You know the funny thing? My partner isn’t even sexually attracted to me, or at least is only barely, most of the time. She’s sexual, but doesn’t really get sexual attraction to people very much. At least not for their looks. Mostly she seems to like certain body parts and situations, or people taking a dominant attitude towards her. Only rarely does she say my appearance itself turns her on. (I wish I could get her to do a guest post on this. Maybe someday.) I think in part this is why I’m much more comfortable with her, although sometimes it also worries me, since I’m not on edge from her being super attracted to me all the time. I would probably be very used to it by now if she was very sexually attracted to me. Overall, I can sort of deal with regular sexual attraction; I’ve gotten better at it. It tends to creep me out when people find me attractive specifically because I’m asexual, especially because the last person who told me that kept calling me a “sexless creature” (like I’m not even human!) and was very coercive. I guess that’s similar to the descriptions I’ve read from racial minorities who are creeped out when people are attracted to them primarily because of their race.
Am I bothered by being sexually attractive? I guess not really, I don’t really have major issues with my body. I don’t even know what my weight is most of the time, or at least I didn’t until I started having to go see doctors regularly. I don’t particularly care to know, so all I’ve got is an idea of a general range in the low 100’s. I’m not actively trying to look unattractive or anything, not like one survivor who tearfully confessed to me that the reason she has an eating disorder is not because she wants to match an unrealistic beauty ideal, but because she wants to look as ugly as possible so nobody would ever want to touch her again. The most I’ll usually do is wear a baggy t-shirt with a sports bra to cover up or at least minimize my breasts, so that I’ll get at least less attention from my appearance. I’m bothered more by the way that people handle their sexual attraction to me than by the fact that I’m attractive to a lot of people.
It’s just… kinda weird to regularly hear/know/contemplate all this stuff about unrealistic beauty standards, and then be told that you basically are the standard, or at least the more realistic version of it. I mean, I’d still be photoshopped if I appeared in a magazine or something, I’m sure. But something similar to my face is what this plastic surgeon aims to create. To me, that’s just… weird.
This post has been brought to you by Compliments, Introspective Tendencies, and Too Much Time On My Hands.
If you are on Facebook and have any significant number of female friends on it, then most likely you’ve seen the most recent so-called “breast cancer awareness” meme.
Here is the message that I received:
One of my friends has suggested that we women should do something special on facebook in order to increase awareness of October Breast Cancer Awareness month. It’s so easy to do, that I’d love you to join in to make this a memorable online event.
Last year, the idea was to post the colour of the bra you were wearing on facebook…and it left men wondering for days, why women were posting colours, seemingly at random.
This year’s game has to do with your handbag/purse, where we put our handbag the moment we get home; for example “I like it on the couch”, “I like it on the kitchen counter”, “I like it on the dresser”. Well u get the idea. Just put your answer as your status (i.e. don’t respond to this message, but put it on your status) – and cut n paste this message and forward to all your FB female friends to their inbox.
The bra game made it to the news. Let’s get the purse in as well and see how powerful we women really are!!!
REMEMBER – DO NOT PUT YOUR ANSWER AS A REPLY TO THIS MESSAGE- PUT IT IN YOUR STATUS!!! PASS THIS TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW!!
Jen McCreight of Blag Hag (who unintentionally set off Boobquake a while back) posted a pointed critique of this meme here, which I totally agree with. I think it’s important to question the way we do activism, and make sure that in our attempts to promote awareness of anything, breast cancer included, we absolutely need to make sure we’re not harming other activist causes we agree with, like feminism or sex positivity.
Now here’s what I really want to start a conversation about: why does “it,” unqualified, even mean “sex” at all? Why are we, as a culture, so invested in cutesy euphemisms, fake confessions, and pretending that sex is a dirty little secret that we should interpret it that way? Yeah, this is a little Foucaultian. But I really think we ought to question this norm. There are about a million things that “it” can refer to, so why is sex the default?
And obviously, this meme is totally uninclusive. Besides the fact that men can get breast cancer, too… How exactly is an asexual supposed to participate? Especially considering that national Coming Out Day is only a couple of days away. I wouldn’t participate in this meme because I think it’s sexist and does very little to save lives—at most, it might potentially remind someone to get a mammogram, but that’s only if they’re in on it already—but what if I did want to do it? I mean, sure, maybe it might be funny. But I imagine that for me at least, it would end up being way more awkward than funny. My facebook friends are largely acquaintances that I don’t know all that well, who may or may not be aware that I’m asexual. Posting a variant of this meme would be an opener for people to start questioning my asexuality. Suddenly the comments would start pouring in: “Haha, I knew you weren’t really asexual.” Or, “Mmm, hot!”
And I really just don’t want people to think of me in a sexual way. I don’t want to titillate anyone. As a reasonably attractive woman by society’s standards, I get enough sexual attention already. I don’t want to open the gates for any more comments about how it’s a “waste” that I’m asexual, I don’t want any virtual catcalls; I wouldn’t appreciate them any more than I do when I get them on the street, and then get called a bitch for ignoring them. It bugs me enough that people seem to think that I’m holding hands with my girlfriend to get their attention. Of course I laughed when some guy ran into a curb because he was too busy staring at us to pay attention while driving. But while it might be funny to cause my Facebook friends to do a double take at my status, it’s not really the kind of thing I want to open myself up to.
I’m somewhat tempted to try to start an awareness meme for asexuality in reaction to this one on Facebook, but I doubt it would do much good. I’m not sure that we actually have the numbers behind us to get a meme like that going, and most likely people’s reactions would be to just brush it off, call us humorless, and move on.
[NOTE: This post is more than five years old, and should not be taken as if it is recent. If you are looking for a guide to having sex with an asexual person, that is here. This one is just ridiculing the idea that having sex with an asexual person counts as seduction. Original text below.]
“Get her a kitty,” C quipped, when I quoted this search term [the title of this post, “how to seduce an asexual”] that somebody used to find my blog. (There used to be a website out there called Asexual Porn which mainly featured pictures of cats, but it’s gone now.)
I am amused at the idea that somebody out there is seriously trying to seduce an asexual. Like, what? Leaving aside the problematic parts of the first response to that question for the moment, I have a hard time believing that it’s actually possible to seduce an asexual person even if you do have sex with them.
Because if you do, it’s not technically seduction.
Seduction implies an attraction so strong that you give in to suppressed (not repressed, but suppressed) desire despite misgivings. It’s not just “I got her to have sex with me.” That’s agreement, but it’s not seduction. Seduction is something more than that. Seduction implies coquetry. Seduction implies baseball theory.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this is one definition of the verb seduce: “To win by charm or attractiveness.” This is a more obscure definition not directly related to sex, except by its figurative suggestion of the more common definitions. Still, it seems to take a key part of what it means to seduce (in terms of sex) and generalize it to a broader sense. If something is seductive, then it means that thing is alluring. Thus, it seems that seduction necessarily involves charm and attractiveness.
Asexuals, by definition, don’t experience sexual attraction. So while you very well might be able to say that an asexual person is “seduced” by something in the much broader sense of the word (maybe), it doesn’t translate well to a sexual context. Asexual people may be just as subject to charm and attractiveness on various other levels as sexual people, but the thing is, it doesn’t lead to a desire to have sex. Now, of course, you have to keep in mind that when I say “desire to have sex” here I’m referring to a strong emotional desire which springs directly from the person’s attractiveness; anyone (including asexuals) can want to have sex for many other reasons besides feeling such sexual attraction, and some asexuals do choose to have sex, so it’s certainly wrong of the first person to say that it’s only possible to get an asexual person to have sex “through illegal means.”
But because of the disconnect from the decision to have sex and the various types of attraction that asexual people feel for the people they decide to have sex with—or in other words, the lack of a sexual kind of attraction—it’s difficult to see the concept of seduction as appropriate to apply to the case of the asexual. If it could be considered appropriate in any case, it could only be applied in a gray or anomalous area, and even then only by asexuals themselves. I consider it absolutely and unequivocally wrong for a person who has had sex with an asexual to go around saying that they’ve “seduced” that person, because they are applying assumptions about that person’s reality which ultimately amount to a denial of their asexuality.
You want to get an asexual person to have sex with you? Well then, the best idea of how to go about it is certainly not to ride roughshod over every part of their autonomy, choice, and competence. You’d better respect their ability to know themselves. You’d better not go into it assuming that you are somehow special, and that you are going to be able to convert them from their misguided belief that “[insert misunderstood interpretation of what asexuality means here].” You should give up on the idea of seduction, because that’s not going to happen. You should even give up on the idea that sex will happen, unless you are specifically and directly negotiating the possibility (and not non-verbally, as there is far too much potential for confusion). And you should understand that even if it does, it’s not going to be because you’re just that sexy. At best, you will get agreement, and that will be based on merits other than your level of sexual attractiveness.
And at worst? It’s called coercion, and there’s nothing seductive about that at all.
Update: New post on the model of seduction here. Please do read it if you’re interested, as it explains more about seduction and why I worded this post the way I did.
You talk about how asexuals don’t really have a human rights issue to organize about, that all we want is visibility. You point out–and rightly so–that asexuals can get married, and marriage isn’t all about sex. Now, you mentioned that there is an expectation there that the marriage isn’t consummated until the couple has had sex. You say that of course nobody is enforcing how often a couple has sex, and sure, that’s true… but the real problem is that nobody is enforcing the right of the uninterested party to NOT have sex. Marital rape is very real, but often goes unrecognized as a real rape because there is this idea that if people get married to one another, they automatically grant consent to have sex with that partner in the future, therefore, they believe those people cannot be raped.
The panelists read some of my email and then summarily dismissed my argument… without actually having heard all of it. I did not write it all out in the email, because I had gone on to suggest that if they were interested, perhaps it might make an interesting topic for a whole show. I thought it would have been interesting to discuss my views with them on the air, but since they seemed not to have been interested in the topic, I guess I will go on the explain them here on the blog.
Henrik misinterpreted what I was saying, and argued that asexuals may actually be less likely to get married, and therefore less likely to be raped. Sure, that’s true. And yes, it is also true that asexuals aren’t the only people who can be raped, so it’s not an issue that is unique to asexuals. But that wasn’t the point.
The point was, since asexuals can never be assumed to give consent, asexuality inherently challenges the assumption that consent is automatically given under certain circumstances. To accept that asexuality exists means to accept that marital rape is a possibility. And not just marital rape. It works for any circumstance in which rape is excused or denied.
And in our culture, that happens A LOT!!
Go to that link. Read it, ALL of it, and then see what you think about dismissing the issue by saying, “But rape is a crime anyway.”
Sure it’s a crime. But it’s extremely hard to prosecute someone for rape, and very often is much more trouble than it’s worth to try. Much, MUCH more trouble. People just don’t take rape seriously, and that often includes judges, doctors, and police. And sadly, maybe some asexuals, too.
I think asexuals bring a unique perspective on rape which would go a long way towards challenging the way it is thought of in our culture. Our very existence gives us the opportunity to do some good in the world, just by making ourselves visible. Since feminists are very anti-rape, maybe we should focus more on forging an alliance with feminists, instead of the GLBT community.
As Ily has observed, his argument makes no sense. It is inarticulate and illogical, and there are so many gaps where he has jumped from one assumption to the other that the article is quite difficult to follow without making great leaps of inferences.
Essentially, this is an emotional argument, and it must be dealt with as such. There is a sort of reasoning to it, but it’s not the same kind of reasoning as an argument based on logic. The Rabbi looks around him and sees that a good chunk of the population does not share his values, and so he fears that society is gradually becoming more and more immoral. This rant of his (for really, that’s what it is) is just the expression of that fear. It doesn’t amount to anything else, because he has not taken the trouble to check his facts; the entire rant is based solely on his own perceptions of the world around him.
Emotional arguments are very tricky, because unlike simple misinformation, they arise from some sort of emotional need, and serve as a defense mechanism which, when taken away, would leave a person vulnerable. Franklin from Xero Mag wrote an essay which does a great job of explaining this. I don’t usually like to challenge emotional beliefs, because it tends to lead to a great amount of hostility, and it rarely accomplishes anything, since the person whose beliefs are being challenged will tend to just sit there and vehemently deny everything that I am saying. If a person is very invested in their emotional belief, it is extremely rare that anyone will be able to get through to them. This is why arguments between atheists and Christians (for example) are almost always futile. The only thing that they can usually accomplish is to change the opinion of someone who is sitting on, or very close to, the fence.
Still, I think it’s important to talk about stuff like this. There are a lot of people out there who might start to become aware of the emotional undercurrents in their own heads which are undermining their statements. I think it’s important for people to challenge their own emotional beliefs, and not let their emotional landscapes twist facts way out of proportion. This kind of thinking affects everyone, including the asexual community. Specifically, I see certain similarities between the Rabbi’s beliefs and their rationale, and those held by some asexuals. Continue reading
Occasionally, people will use search terms to find this blog that pique my curiosity. I had never heard of a gray fetish until today, but apparently someone else has. I also sometimes get search terms including words that I know I’ve said before in the same post, but not together, not as the topic of the post. Today, someone viewed my blog after searching for asexual guys, and I was curious to see what else was out there about asexual guys, so I looked, too.
Of course, there were the usual posts about people seeking to date asexual guys, and those with people wondering whether some male relation of theirs is asexual or gay or just socially awkward, but then there was this strange offering by Rabbi Schmuley Boteach. Confused by the title, “Asexual men and the creeps who live on campus”–since when are asexual men associated or equated with creeps?–I clicked the link. The Rabbi’s main argument seems to be a variant on the idea that rampant sexual debauchery leads men to become desensitized to the point that they are no longer attracted to most normal women, but rather only to a very specific type of woman (presumably strippers and porn stars), and to a very specific type of violently misogynistic situation. I have a few problems with this. Number one is the way he defines asexuality:
The male overexposure to women has even led to the death of the heterosexual man as we know him. If the definition of a heterosexual man is a male who is attracted to women, then most men today are barely heterosexual. Think about it. Nearly all the men I know are only attracted to about one in 10 women, that is, the 10 percent of women they consider “hot.” The other 90 percent leave them cold. Doesn’t that mean that they are 90 percent asexual? And I’m not trying to be funny. If a man is not attracted to a woman, then he is not heterosexual. Period. And if he only attracted to a small fraction of the women he meets, then he is fractionally heterosexual.
Although I can follow his logic, I find that logic flawed on the level that this makes no distinction between a person who is asexual, a person who is just extremely picky, and a person who has a fetish. Now, that word has several different meanings, including two that are non-sexual (an asexual might have “an irrational or abnormal fixation or preoccupation” with something that does not arouse them sexually, for instance). By fetish here, I mean an extreme sexual interest in something to the point that the person cannot get off at all without the presence of that thing. I think what the Rabbi is really meaning to refer to here is the development of such a fetish for the demeaning situations (allegedly, at least–as I have limited experience, I wouldn’t know) shown in porn, and the type of woman who looks like she belongs in one.
The problem is, the way this is worded indicates to me that this has not been thought through and articulated carefully and with a clear understanding of what he is literally saying. He talks of an overexposure to women, for one–how can men be overexposed to a group of people who comprise roughly half of the population? Is he suggesting that we should all be wearing burqas, here? On the contrary, I would infer that he is talking about an overexposure to fantasy women (and any women willing to cater to male fantasy), and an underexposure to real-life women (who are not willing to cater to male fantasy). But this is not made clear in that sentence, so it makes little sense taken on its own.
I think the fallacy with regard to asexuality and heterosexuality is that he is defining them based solely on the percentage of the time that a person is attracted or not attracted, without any regard for the intensity of that attraction when it is experienced, the feelings and attitudes that a person has towards sex, or the fact that these words are labels that refer to the way a person is categorized, rather than indicators of that person’s actual levels of eroticism towards any particular group of people.
For things like this, it usually helps to have a visual model, so let’s use the Storms model. According to this, heterosexuals are people who are high in hetero-eroticism but low in homo-eroticism, homosexuals are people who are high in homo-eroticism but low in hetero-eroticism, bisexuals are high in both, and asexuals are low in both. This seems similar enough to what the Rabbi is saying, but the problem here is in defining what constitutes “high” and what constitutes “low” levels of eroticism.
According to him, if you find 90% of the people around you sexually unattractive, then you are 90% asexual.
However, the people he is talking about devote an extraordinary amount of time thinking and fantasizing about, planning, and engaging in sexual activity. According to him, they have even gone to college expressly for the purpose of indulging in sexual debauchery. You could say that (at least) 90% of their lives are devoted to the pursual of sexual activity. Perhaps they have an extremely narrow idea of what constitutes a sexually attractive woman, and are unable to explore sexuality with the vast majority of the women around them, who do not indulge them in their misogynistic fantasies, but they are still absolutely obsessed with sex. To me, that indicates high levels of eroticism. It’s only a very specific kind of eroticism–as previously stated, a fetish.
So to call them asexual, even while acknowledging that they are “10% sexual,” is highly inaccurate. They would likely not self-identify in that way, and would have very, very little in common with people who do, since usually those people do not miss the sex they are not having, and don’t feel the need to actively pursue sexual activity. Of course, there are people who identify as asexual who might experience sexual attraction a very low percentage of the time, and still consider themselves asexual. I have never heard an estimate of ten percent, and that’s probably quite high, but theoretically, such a person could exist. That’s because these words are labels that are meant to express how people are the vast majority of the time, without getting into very fine details like that one man a lesbian might fall in love with. The Storms model might more accurately look like this (image originally found in this thread)–a blur of different colors with no clear lines in between. There is no simple litmus test that people can take to determine their sexual orientation, and how much a person is attracted to x gender alone is not the only factor that goes into its determination. For those who exist in the borderlands, there may be many more things to take into consideration aside from attraction to people. There are objectum sexuals, and people who are aroused by certain situations but not by the appearance of other people, to take into consideration as well.
In short, being a sexual person does not mean that you want to bone EVERYONE, or even everyone of a certain gender, and being asexual does not necessarily mean that you NEVER feel sexual attraction. Although the main factor for determining sexual orientation is the level of attraction one feels for other people, and which gender those other people are, it cannot be said that men who are only attracted to women 10% of the time are only 10% heterosexual, because that shows a lack of understanding of how self-identification and use of a label that describes sexual orientation works.
And, just for further clarification, I’ll repeat an example I used a long time ago about the availability of attractive women: In a country with an extremely skewed gender ratio like China, where there are so many more boys than girls, a heterosexual male might only encounter a small percentage of women he is attracted to on a day-to-day basis, but does that mean he is not heterosexual? Not many people would answer yes to that question, but if you follow the Rabbi’s statement through to its logical conclusion, then he must.
I have many more thoughts about this, but I’ll have to cut it short for now. I may return to this topic in a future post, though.
Edited to add: I’ve made a second post about this: Dismantling Emotional Flatulence.
Over the years, a bunch of people have made the point that asexuals have something to add to discussions of sexuality, because their differing perspective on the topic lends an ability to see certain points that others miss. Since I’m currently incapable of forming any coherent thoughts on the topic of asexual gender variation, I thought I might try to add my perspective to an essay that I recently stumbled upon: Sexa Rubelucia’s Defense of Trendy Bisexuality, wherein she attempts to do just that.
She makes a few good points in the essay, but my main issue with her argument is that, while she seems at least aware of the difference between sexual attraction and sexual behavior, she does not acknowledge its relevance to the topic at hand. This is an issue with the definition of bisexuality. This is about what it means to be bisexual, or not. And the commonly accepted definition of any sexual orientation is based on attraction, not behavior, although many people seem to have a muddled and inconsistent understanding of this, including the author of this essay. Reading the essay, I have no clear idea of what her actual views on “real” biseuxality are, though she offers the following definition of fake bisexuals:
Trendy bisexuality is … the kind of bisexuality in which a girl has sex with, hooks up with, or makes out with, other girls to arouse/get the attention of a guy (or guys) watching, or because she wants to be able to say she’s bisexual as she knows it makes her sound sexier to guys, or just because she’s heard that it’s cool to be bi now. It’s distinguished as “trendy” bisexuality to indicate that these girls only do it because it’s “cool” and because lots of other girls do it. The term “trendy bisexuality” is meant to be insulting, and women who self-identify as “trendy bisexuals” only do so in a self-effacing, deliberately ironic way.
It’s clear that she understands what the difference is between so-called “trendy bisexuals” and real bisexuals–that is, the motivation for their behavior. However, she curiously does not address the distinction between orientation (a relatively set pattern of gender-based attraction) and behavior, which is being clarified by people who use the terms “trendy” or “fake bisexuals”–clearly, people question whether such people ought to be calling themselves bisexuals at all. She seems to go back and forth on this, acknowledging her own low level of attraction to women and how that qualifies her to claim the label “bisexual,” and then later saying that a woman who has had sex with other women’s claim to be straight is somehow suspect. Instead of looking at the very obvious definitional qualms that people have with trendy bisexuality, she focuses on feminist objections to the phenomenon of, as she so aptly calls it, “female/female sex as a performance.”
Far be it from me to claim that sex as a performance is a necessarily bad thing (especially considering my own advice on the topic), but some of her claims are a little suspect. I’m sure there’s something to the whole feminist “sexual expectation double-standard,” but her emphasis on how people who object to this on feminist grounds must be man-haters is a little overblown, in my opinion. Some people simply don’t like the idea of performing to fulfill a man’s fantasies, and I don’t think it necessarily means that they hate all men (or even all heterosexual men) because of that. When their fantasies are about women existing as objects meant for their use, it’s understandable why some women would be uncomfortable with that. I, personally, wouldn’t go so far as to say that other women shouldn’t ever engage in any erotic activities with other women solely with the intent of arousing men, but I still find this practice distasteful because there is such a heavy cultural bias towards the fulfillment of male fantasies (which she does mention), and I think that distaste is very much legitimate. I also do think it is interesting that in the same breath as she dismisses others’ claims that straight girls engage in bisexual behavior because they have low self-esteem, she writes off people who have a repulsion to and/or ideological problems with society’s conception of sex as having low self-esteem:
Girls who have low self-esteem do a lot of things. Some girls have low self-esteem and therefore have promiscuous sex. Some girls have low self-esteem and therefore refuse to have sex at all and write feminist theory about why all sex is bad and wrong and evil.
And then there is this little gem:
The overarching answer to the concern of “someone will get hurt” is that it’s sex! Someone always gets hurt! It feels really great, and then it confuses you, and then someone gets hurt, and then everyone deals with it. There’s pretty much nothing you can do to prevent that. (emphasis hers)
Um… what? I mean, first of all, from that previous quote, she acts like sex is so wonderful that anyone who has problems with it must have low self-esteem… and then she says this? I sure HOPE people don’t ALWAYS get hurt when they have sex! Even I, an asexual woman, am not so cynical as to say such a thing, and you know? I guess you could call me naive if you want, but that hasn’t been my experience, either. There was a time when I wondered if I would ever be able to get through sex without pain, but I have since discovered that I am perfectly capable of it, on both an emotional and a physical level. There ARE precautions that people can take to keep themselves from being hurt, and even those who are acting outside of their orientation can benefit from them. I wonder, that this woman would say such a thing, especially in this context. I understand very well how a lack of experience and understanding about one’s own desires (or lack thereof) might lead to less-than-stellar communication (been there, done that!), and I don’t think people should be vilified simply for that. However, this reeks of an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s actions. If people are not up-front and honest about their intentions, including whether or not they are experimenting, then things are likely to go wrong, and if somebody gets hurt because the other person wasn’t honest, you can’t claim that it was the fault of the person who WAS honest. Of course, when entering into any kind of relationship, there is always the risk of being lied to, or hurt in any other way. But just because someone understands that they are taking that risk, does that mean that it is acceptable for people to do manipulative and unsavory things to them? Should people just never trust anyone, ever? How about: “Well, it’s your fault you got raped, because you knew there was a chance I might have been lying to you!” No. This is just a way of avoiding blame.
That’s not to say that ALL “trendy bisexuals” engage in this behavior, because some people, I’m sure, are actually up-front about the fact that they are just experimenting, or solely interested in sexing women because they want to attract men. Those who aren’t, however, incur the displeasure of those they mislead for a very good reason. Either way, this argument just barely misses, and then dismisses, the real issue: that trendy bisexuals are MISLEADING PEOPLE by calling themselves bisexual in the first place (and do note, I didn’t say they are “using” people, because I agree, that’s a useless phrase, and plus, it’s such a narrow term it misses some of the broader implications). They aren’t actually bisexual, even though they engage in sexual behavior with people of both genders, and tend to claim that label (the writer of that essay is an uncommon breed in that she actually calls herself a trendy bisexual; usually, that is a label that only other people use to describe someone, while the person being called a “trendy bisexual” just calls herself bisexual). And this can potentially hurt both the people with whom they are intimately involved, and the wider bisexual, lesbian, and even asexual communities due to its spreading of the misinformed conflation of behavior with a label that’s not about behavior at all.
But really, what sinks this complaint is that trendy bisexuals are pretty clearly distinguished from serious lesbians, usually by the fact that their boyfriend is standing no farther than a few feet away.
I doubt this very much, as in my experience (as a biromantic asexual woman partnered to a bisexual passing trans woman–meaning, we look, act, and are treated like lesbians in public), many men seem to assume that most, if not all, out lesbians (who are attractive, at least), are just trendy bisexuals, and would be receptive to their frequent catcalls and offers for threesomes. I really can’t stress enough how frequently this happens. In fact, just a few hours ago, as my girlfriend and I were walking back to our car, just holding hands and not being overtly (or even covertly!) sexual at all, some guy ran into a curb because he was too busy staring at whooping at us to pay attention to the road. You could argue, perhaps, that these men aren’t really seriously harming us by expressing their interest, but the degree to which (even the smallest amount of) female-female affection is sexualized makes me think there is something more insidious going on. My (non-sexual) affection for my girlfriend is routinely trivialized and cast as a simple ploy to gain male attention, when in reality, it has nothing whatever to do with either men OR sex, at all. This is indeed an example of male narcissism, but I am deeply concerned with the idea that this narcissism is harmless. It represents society-wide beliefs that have real-world consequences, which trendy bisexuals may not be aware of because they play into and reinforce the beliefs that other people hold, but women who are seriously committed to one another are much more likely to encounter. The main issue, aside from the demoralizing assumption that women exist for men and the extreme focus on sex, is that we lose credibility. We are much less likely to be taken seriously, as people will assume this is “just a phase” that women go through in college… and if, for example, my mother thinks this way, I may have a disaster on my hands when I finally come out to her, since I am still financially dependent on her and she has quite a bit of power over me. Is this not a legitimate concern?
It seems to me that there is an unwillingness to accept the fact that lesbians even exist, and that it is not at all clear (especially not immediately so) whether any given female-female couple are actually lesbians (this goes back to the issue of orientation vs. behavior, and how that is likely to contribute to the invisibility of groups like asexuals and bisexuals). Although there will certainly be people who assume they are lesbians, people also tend to see what they want to see. The fact that trendy bisexuals exist lends credence to heterosexual males’ wishful thinking, and though that may not actually be what the trendy bisexual is aiming to do, it is understandably annoying to lesbians that this happens, especially since it happens with such frequency. It also undermines the credence that people are likely to give to actual bisexuals, a group that is presumed to an even larger extent than lesbians not to even exist. Again, going back to visibility issues and the damage that defining orientation by behavior does. The writer of this essay seems to be aware of the behavior/attraction distinction, but she is blantantly dismissive of it:
I’ve heard plenty of women say “Oh, I’ve had sex with girls but I’m straight” (note: That is a pretty ridiculous statement), but I can’t even imagine a man saying the same thing about having had sex with a man.
Why is it ridiculous for a girl who has had sex with girls to claim that she’s straight? She is basing her statement on her patterns of attraction, and NOT on her behavior. It is a perfectly legitimate statement. I am asexual, but I have had sex, and that doesn’t make me any less asexual. That I have had sex does not automatically mean that I experienced sexual attraction (contrary to popular belief, I’m sure), because arousal can be a purely physical response to stimuli, that does not spring from any sexual attraction. If it’s possible to be aroused without feeling sexual attraction at all, it’s certainly possible to be aroused by an attraction to something else (in this case, the men that are turned on by lesbians) and then have sex with someone who did not inspire the initial attraction.
The author goes on to explain that that statement would be even more ridiculous in reverse, with a man insisting that his having had sex with a man does not make him gay, and rightly so. To most people in our culture, that would seem like a contradiction, but there have been other cultures where male homosexual interactions were even institutionalized, as mentor-student relationships that were considered a rite of passage. I am thinking of the ancient Greeks and Tokugawa-era Japan, here. As I understand it, it was quite normal in those cultures for men to have sex with other men without being presumed to be homosexual, as those men usually also took wives. There was no stigma attached to this, as there is in our culture, which is probably the reason why our men are so afraid of doing anything whatsoever that might lead others to assume that they are gay. That a man has had sex with another man, in my eyes, would not automatically mean that he is gay, except that since that assumption is so prevalent throughout this society, and since there is so much stigma attached to that act, so much homophobia running rampant throughout society, it would be quite a stretch to think that a heterosexual man would be so willing to experiment that he would even be willing to subject himself to that stigma.
To be gay is to lose social status. For men, who are ascribed a higher social status than women, it is a very, very bad for their image to appear effeminate in any way. Having sex with other men is seen as a marker of effeminacy, because of the way that society conceives of the power structure that is built into sex. To be a bottom in an act of gay sex is to act as a woman, and in so doing, sacrifice one’s (ever-fragile) masculinity. Which is, of course, probably the reason why, as the author observes, there is no male equivalent of the trendy bisexual in American culture (though there is something similar in Japan, but it is usually outright acknowledged that the guys are doing it solely for the girls’ benefit, instead of them claiming to actually be bisexual). Curiously, she fails to comment on that power structure, but she does point out some of the differences between gay male sex and lesbian sex:
Lesbian sex is far less necessarily physically threatening than gay male sex. Penetration isn’t a requirement for two women to have sex with each other, whereas a man who identifies as bisexual is basically saying he’s willing to take it up the ass.
But is this really what he is saying, or is this just what people assume he is saying? What about a bisexual man who is strictly a top? And since when is penetration required for gay sex? I have known gay couples who never engage in penetrative sex because they don’t enjoy it, but do have other kinds of sex. Obviously, one alternative is oral sex. I also remember reading about one society (maybe the Romans? but I can’t recall which) that considered the anus dirty, and instead of having anal intercourse, they would engage in frottage–i.e., men would rub their penises between the closed thighs of other men. This statement highlights how incredibly phallocentric and extremely focused on penetration our society is. Even though anal intercourse is not the only form of gay male sex out there, it is the only form that society recognizes as such (and furthermore, people specifically focus on the bottom without considering the top, which shows how much focus there is on the person who is being “emasculated” and stripped of their social status).
An asexual perspective might be useful here, because in searching for an alternative form of sexuality that might be more tolerable to us than the usual penetrative kind of sex, we often realize how incredibly narrow society’s definition of “sex” is. There are many, many other ways to do sex than just penetration. In the case of lesbian sex, too, this must be acknowledged, because not all lesbian sex involves a strap-on. It is interesting to me that the author of that essay acknowledges that penetration is not required for lesbian sex, but doesn’t realize that it isn’t required for gay male sex either. It strikes me as something of a double-standard. After all, lesbians can and do penetrate each other–why, then, with all this focus on penetration, is that not considered THE way that lesbians have sex? In fact, to many people who hold such a penetration-centric view of sex, it is not even obvious that women CAN have sex with each other, because most women haven’t got a phallus–at least, not one that’s biologically attached.
In short, her arguments leave me unconvinced. I wonder whether she has ever heard of asexuality, and what her reaction to it would be. She doesn’t really seem the type who would take well to the idea, what with her comments about self-esteem and how “ridiculous” it is for girls with a history of having sex with other girls to call themselves straight. I would expect her to dismiss my experiences, claim I am insecure, and say I must be a man-hater because I dislike the way men sexualize me and trivialize my emotions (to say nothing of the actual objectification). I do have a problem with trendy bisexuals, but not because I think they shouldn’t act the way they do, on feminist grounds. My problem is that they are straight women who call themselves bisexual, and thus spread misinformation about what a sexual orientation even is, which can be harmful to ALL non-heterosexual orientations. It would be fine with me if they would at least acknowledge that they are not really, or only barely, attracted to women, and are mainly turned on by them because it turns on men. (I can, after all, understand enjoyment of others’ sexual reactions, as that is the main reason why I even have sex at all.) But most of them don’t (and actually, I wouldn’t call anyone who did a “trendy bisexual” at all; in my eyes, she would just be a straight woman who engages in bisexual behavior), either because they don’t understand what the term “bisexual” means themselves, or they are simply not willing to say they engage in behavior that is viewed negatively, even though that is the truth. They either do not realize the harm that they are doing to the larger community by spreading misinformation, or are not willing to take responsibility for misleading people. I don’t think these concerns are off-base; in fact, her essay only serves to trouble me more.
A little while ago I had a conversation with one of my friends about asexuality and fetishes. She wondered if there were any people out there who fetishized asexuals, did a google search and (of course) didn’t find anything relevant. I don’t think asexuality is well known enough yet for people to start fetishizing it, but I think it’s just about inevitable that at some point, someone will. I’ve already seen a sketch of “asexual porn” after all, which, although facetious, just goes to show that if it exists, there’s porn of it. (There’s no way I could link to this sketch, though, since it was on a high-traffic image forum on which posts usually don’t last even a few hours. For the record, this sketch was meant to be a picture of two asexual people lying there naked, doing nothing.) I don’t know why on earth someone would find this sexy, but apparently some people do.
The idea, though, is very uncomfortable. Asexuals are just about the last people on earth who would want to be fetishized. I have a hard enough time dealing with just being sexually attractive, let alone being attractive because I don’t have any desire for sex. How’s that for a paradox?
Exactly one year and one week ago (according to my chat transcripts), M actually told me something to that effect. His exact words were:
[05:20] M: ironically, your passivity towards sexuality, is actually what makes you sexy
[05:21] M: it’s weird
[05:21] M: lol
[05:21] Me: really
[05:21] M: yeah its hard to describe
[05:21] M: ol
[05:22] Me: so what, is it like an I’m not interested so you feel more like… it’s more of a challenge…effect?
[05:23] M: njo
[05:23] M: its just eerie and fascinating to imagine/see a sexual persona in an otherwise sexless creature.
[05:24] Me: hmm
[05:24] M: you’re just a weirdo. how about that.
[05:24] M: and weirdo’s are sexy.
[05:25] M: i mean, given other criteria are met
[05:25] M: but yeah. lol
There will be people, I’m sure, who will think that the person who wrote that postcard is probably asexual, but I’m not one of them. I mean sure, they could be, but I think it more likely that this person is sexual, and just for whatever reason is more interested in playing Rock Band than having sex under whatever circumstances, simply because it seems to be a much more common scenario among sexuals than they like to admit (and of course, there are many more sexuals out there than asexuals).
I have a friend whose designation in our little social circle is to be the token horndog. She is infamous for her wild sexual behavior (and, well, wild behavior in general) and the group makes a point of prodding her stories about her sexual experiences out of her. She is quite vocal about her sexual desires, fantasies, and experiences, but although she gives the impression that she thinks sex is fun and she wants to have a lot of it, she recently admitted to me privately that she actually has never even once had a positive sexual experience, in all the years since she lost her virginity (and she lost it early). She thinks the reason is because she was never in love with any of the people she’s had sex with, and that one day, with the right person, she’ll be able to have a lot of great sex. But in the meantime she pretends that it’s been a lot more fun for her than it really has been.
She’s not the only person who has admitted something like this to me (I guess it’s safe for people to tell me because I won’t tell them they have a problem for not liking it all the time). I’ve had three other friends (who identify as sexual) confess that they just don’t like sex as much as they think they should, and a few of them have even considered whether they might really be asexual. Sex now, as it’s defined by our culture, has become this great big concept that eats away at reality because of how hyped up it is. I’m sure there are people out there who really do think sex is just the greatest thing in the world, but there are a lot of people who are just going along with it. Maybe they are going along with it in order to combat negative attitudes about sex, but in that case I don’t think they’re really being sex-positive, because how can lying about how great sex is be a positive thing? It’s only going to put more pressure on people to exaggerate their own experiences, and set up false expectations that will eventually lead to disappointment.
Really, I’m shocked by how much pressure there already is on people to have more and better sex. A little while ago I read this rant on Heartless Bitches International, and… wow. Are you kidding me??? There are actually women who are willing to stick a needle in their G-spots to pump it up with collagen??? OUCH. And I thought visits to the gynecologist were bad.
I’m not sure I agree with the feminist slant of that article, though, if only because the pressure to be sexual is equally bad for men. Although there is certainly a double standard in place in that women who (are perceived to) have a lot of sex are seen as sluts, while promiscuity for males is something that builds confidence and social status. I do think that, although “orgasmo grrl” may be the new cultural ideal, the old feminine ideals are not dead yet, and so female asexuals may still find it a little easier to admit to being asexual than their male counterparts.